Critic, arbiter of taste, renowned authority on Renaissance painting, and oracle to millionaire art collectors, Bernard Berenson was the most formidable presence in the Anglo-American art world for more than thirty years. His Villa I Tatti near Florence was a magnet for European and American intellectuals; he was able to say, late in life, that most of the Italian paintings that had come to the United States had “my visa on their passport.” Twenty years after his death he remains a paradoxical figure—fit challenge for a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer.
The story of the making of the connoisseur spans four decades, from Berenson’s childhood in Lithuania and in an immigrant enclave in Boston to the triumphant tour of the United States that confirmed his international reputation. Ernest Samuels interweaves with great skill the many threads of the narrative. No less fascinating than Berenson’s own development, and the accidents that shaped his career, are his relations with an extraordinary cast of characters whose lives impinged on his—among them George Santayana, William James, Bertrand Russell, Logan Pearsall Smith, Norman and Hutchins Hapgood, Oscar Wilde, Vernon Lee, the Michael Fields, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Roger Fry, and, most notably, the fabled Mrs. Jack Gardner. His relationship with Mary Smith Costelloe, who left her husband and children for him and eventually became his wife, was so close that the book is almost as much her story as his.
Drawing on the thousands of letters B.B. and Mary wrote and the diaries she kept, Samuels is able to convey Berenson’s thoughts and impressions as well as the outward events of these crucial years of his life. He blends sympathy and irony in his many-faceted portrayal of a complex man and a remarkable career. It is a compelling book.
Berenson has an ideal biographer in Samuels. Impeccable in method, strong in narrative skill, Samuels scants nothing as to place, period or person, and is no less remarkable for inwardness, depth and charity of feeling.
The depth in which this book explores the young connoisseur’s life is quite extraordinary… Our understanding of Berenson’s life and work is permanently changed.
A remarkably absorbing and lucid biography of Berenson’s early career. The book does full justice to the verve and excitement of Berenson’s connoisseurship.
This is a life filled with extraordinary people… Collectively they made the 1890s outrageously exciting, and the Berensons, in their relentless quest for recognition and security, serve as the perfect mirror. Samuels turns the mirror deftly, through Boston, London, Florence, Oxford, Vienna, and Chicago, pausing briefly in the boudoir, lingering in the golden hills of Tuscany, relentlessly reflecting the social scene… Samuels brilliantly captures it all.
A portrait replete with the complex ironies created in the conflicts between vaulting idealism and the harsh necessities of living well… [It] makes clear the tortuous conflicts of his life, and stands as a splendid monument to its author’s understanding of the human quandaries of his extraordinary subject and his equally extraordinary wife.
An in-depth, sensitive, and total portrait of Bernard Berenson. [The] Making of a Connoisseur commences with B. B.’s childhood in Lithuania, his family’s immigration to Boston, his education, travel, and development during the first four decades of his life… One eagerly anticipates the second volume that is to cover the last five and a half decades.
- 516 pages
- 6-1/4 x 9-3/16 inches
- Belknap Press
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